My Bloody Valentine is an extremely important band to me. I first listened to Loveless back in college, and I hated it! I didn’t understand how this tangled, unintelligible tangle of pure noise could be considered one of the “great rock albums.” Fast-forward a few years to my time in Korea, and I found myself having a revelation as I was walking the streets and decided for whatever reason to listen to Loveless again and quickly realized that it wasn’t just noise. They were using fuzz, reverb, and volume as instruments. Every single note was important, sure, but equally important was the way each note was played and then how it was processed and re-processed and slammed into the next note, creating washes of sound that are right on the verge of spinning out of control but somehow, magically, make perfect sense. I talked my wife into listening to the album, and she hated it! Then I tried to explain that it doesn’t work like other music, you’ve got to let it wash over you. Next thing you know, both of us decided it’s our favorite album. Loveless got the both of us through some very hard, lonely times overseas, and it’s been an album we return to over and over again, in good times and bad (along with mbv, which nobody seems to talk about, criminally).
As I (re)discovered the band after the whole mbv cycle, I didn’t think there would ever be a chance to see them live. I’ve been lucky enough to go to a lot of shows and see many of my musical heroes (yo, Talking Heads, figure your crap out), including my beloved Slowdive last year, but seeing as it took 22 years to put out an album, chances seemed slim. When a short US tour was announced, I think I literally screamed, stood up, and ran in a tight circle around the room. This was it. After hearing all the stories of their shows from countless articles, books, and videos, I would have a chance to see them myself. I had heard hundreds of stories about the volume, the earplugs, Kevin’s fussiness over the sound, etc., and to quote Han Solo –
The set started off awkwardly with a false start, followed by Kevin telling us they were having technical difficulties “as usual.” They then kicked off properly and it was complete, earth-shatteringly loud bliss. If you know a bit about this band, this is really the most MBV thing that could happen at the start of their set. Even as they played, Kevin was often walking around in an alcove of amps and gear he had made for himself, and while I never noticed a single note out of place, he would often, in the middle of a song, walk around and talk to techs (who scrambled around the sidelines) about who knows what all while still playing. There was such a staggering amount of gear on the stage that it’s no wonder that things go wonky sometimes.
The sound of the show is probably indescribable, but you know, I’ll do my best. The volume of an MBV show is a storied thing, but there is truly no way to prepare for this. I brought earplugs, and miraculously they seem to have saved my hearing, but I thought more than once that I would be fully deaf afterwards even with them in. This is a rock concert, a “show,” and it could be assumed that this group cranks it up because they can, it’s their thing, and they just want to be loud. I’m here to tell you that MBV needs to be this loud because that is how they do what they do. It won’t work at anything lower than primordial, all-encompassing, organ-rattling decibels. They have discovered an aural alchemy that requires a lot of heat to make the transmutation happen!
I spent a lot of the show with my eyes closed as there is something profoundly weird about looking out at these four (plus an accompanist) figures and knowing that somehow those very normal looking people are making this incredible sound happen. My brain was struggling to compromise the normalcy of how the band looks and the thoroughly unnatural qualities of the sound, so just closing my eyes let my brain rest from that and focus on the thicc riffs and hot, juicy tonez. At the end of each song I would look over at my wife to 1) make sure she still exists on the same dimensional plane, and 2) try to communicate through wide eyes, eyebrow wiggles, and hand gestures that I couldn’t believe what was happening. The sheer amount of sounds that Kevin and Belinda are able to make from their guitars does not make sense, and being able to do so much in a live setting deserves some sort of award.
I am not a drug boy. I am not nearly cool enough to have ever been offered drugs in my youth. However, the qualities of the sound MBV makes in concert with the volume caused me to experience some wild stuff. You can’t escape this sound. At most shows, it can be easy to be distracted by the screaming teens, the thousands of phones held high to capture pictures and video that nobody will ever want to actually see, and the beer spilling all over your Stan Smiths. That is not the case here. The room is music for two hours. You can’t hear anything else, nothing else exists. It’s completely engulfing. At no point was this more accentuated than during their 17th (!) track of the set, “Soon,” off of Loveless. After playing the majority of the track in as straightforward a manner as an MBV song goes, the final few bars were repeated over and over, stretched to about 5 or 6 minutes, as the psychedelic visuals that had been projected over the whole front of the theater whirled in bright yellows and oranges. Instead of being annoying, this is the closest to a trance-like state I’ve ever experienced as I thrilled at the resolving note of each bar and yearned for them to repeat it, which they obliged several times.
As far as the actual performance goes, most of the songs sound radically different from their recorded versions, but not at all in a bad way. You get to hear more of the actual songwriting in each one as the different sections are easier to differentiate; the sound in concert was not nearly as melted as they sound on record many times. The tracks off of Loveless did, of course, totally rip, and it was a blast to hear these classics, but my favorite songs of the evening (with the exception of the life-changing performance of “Soon”) were by far the tracks they played off of mbv. They sounded far more lush, warmer, like I was just being hugged with the sound. Driving home, my wife and I pondered if the songwriting that went into that album was maybe tooled around live performance more as she agreed that they were the best of the evening.
The heroes of the evening, da real MVPs, were Debbie (bass) and Colm (drums), who stayed completely locked-in the entire evening. Back in Korea when I was realizing that Loveless was an absolute unit, I was in awe of how the songs remained songs. Earlier this year at Record Store Day I picked up the Kevin Shields/Brian Eno collaborative EP, because of course I did. It’s about 20 minutes of staggeringly beautiful drones and washes, but, you know, that’s about it! But on Loveless, when the guitars are going completely mad, twirling and melting into each other, it’s Colm’s drums that hold everything together. Without his drums, the sounds would only be sound, not songs. At the show on Wednesday evening, while Belinda and Kevin drifted slowly at the sides of stage like astral bodies, Debbie and Colm stayed physically close and spent much of the set watching each other, grinning madly as they absolutely shredded for two straight hours. They have the important task of keeping the whole machine running, and they did so with style and aplomb. Not only that, but because of the mixing, you could really hear Debbie’s basslines throughout, and I have a whole new appreciation for her contribution to the band. When Debbie and Colm took center stage, put on guitars of their own, and all four members shredded through “Wonder 2,” I nearly died.
I eagerly await the new EPs that are supposedly going to come out soon as I don’t think this group can make anything other than masterpieces, but I think the greatest thing about this band still being together is that they’re obviously enjoying playing and writing together. Thank you, My Bloody Valentine, for coming to the States, and I hope to see you again soon.
I Only Said
When You Sleep
New Song 1
You Never Should
New Song 2
Cigarette in Your Bed
What You Want
Nothing Much to Lose
Who Sees You
To Here Knows When
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise